The Sweet-Talking Star of the Sannio

May 21, 2010 / Food & Wine
Sant'Agata dei Goti

baba1Stella means star.

Stella Ricci is the premier baker and chocolatier of the Sannio and a very entertaining woman. I had the opportunity to watch her give a fascinating lecture/demonstration on the making of Babà and Sfogliatelle, two of the many pastries that are now legendary in Campania.

Babà are Campania’s version of cupcakes. Made with flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and LOTS of butter, these mini cakes look like little upside-down chef’s hats. The dough is whisked energetically for almost half an hour, and is turned out only after it makes a slapping sound in the beater.

baba2Then comes the interesting part. The extra kneading of the dough is performed by taking a handful of the mixture and throwing it – much like a yo-yo or paddle ball – into the air and catching it again. After this motion is repeated a few times it is then spezzato, or broken off, just like mozzarella. The dough is pinched through the top of the hand and dropped into little individual baking tins. After cooking and cooling, the babà is soaked in a syrupy mixture of hot water, sugar and rum, then squeezed dry like a sponge. This is how it is sold, but once home it is doused with additional rum before serving.

baba3The dish originated in Lemberg in the 1600’s, when it was known as kugelhopf. The story goes that the deposed king of Poland Stanislas Leszczynska, tasted the dessert while exiled in France. He found the cake dry and threw it off his plate in disgust where it landed in a puddle of rum that was on the table. He watched as the cake soaked up the liquor and decided to taste it again. He was so delighted with the result that he named it after his favorite story-book hero, Ali Baba, and it eventually became know simply as babà.

Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”,, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

17 Responses to “The Sweet-Talking Star of the Sannio”

  1. Nancy Christopher

    Very interesting article but would it be possible to see her video making the items being made especially the sfogliatelle ? I’ve wanted to try making that wonderful layered pastry treat for years.

  2. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Thank you! I hadn’t a clue how Baba’ were made even after 5 years living in Naples. Since I don’t like the taste of rum, I do wish there were a version with something like brandy… sfogliatelle are my thing here.

  3. Barbara Goldfield’s brilliant and delightful description of the process of making Baba’s was fascinating to read. Thanks for the history lesson that accompanied it, the beautiful articulation of how to make it, and the seductive way of describing the process of making babas that I could almost taste the baba melting in my mouth. I have a few memories of eating babas as a child.
    I loved the taste of the cake but didn’t like the rum. You can tell I still needed time to develop a more ‘mature’ taste.
    Thanks Barbara, this was a delightful read. John B

  4. Frank Scaramella

    To my Family, they are the best pastry that we buy for jist-about every celebration and we don,t mind the long drive to the Chicago West s9ide to buy them at the Ferrara bakery(Owned by a Neapolitan Family)who provide the original recipe for baba’ and sfogliatelle,much to our delight.

  5. Jean B-C

    We, too, loved them, while visiting Napoli, the homeland of my grandmother. The native-born Napolitana amica of my daughter, with whom my daughter was living and studying while in Italy, showed us around her city. Her explanation of the “history” of the two delicacies included the widespread opinion that they resembled the male and female anatomical reproductive parts! I leave it to you to figure out which is which.

  6. Bob Tie

    Fascinating details on one of my favorite desserts. Can’t wait to hear about sfogliatelle. We buy them both at Court Pastry (a Neapolitan landmark) in Brooklyn. Grazie.

  7. Gian Banchero

    For years I heard from my Neapolitan-American friends about the glory of sfogliatelle and baba’, then I tried both the pastries (here in the States) and the conclusion was that they were OK, sort of good, but nothing to sing about. Then I lived in Napoli for a while, had both the pastries on their home turf very, very often-too often–and the rest is history… except for the weight I gained!!!!! Thank you for the wonderful “sweet” article….

  8. Claudia McCadden

    For many years, my Aunt Dolores who was from Naples always had the (Baba) when we went visiting her. I never knew what they were until now. I am so glad that you sent us this article. I hope that we will see the sfogliatelle being made too!!!
    In Bob Tie’s note, I am originally from Brooklyn,and now live on Long Island. Can you tell me where is (Court Pastry)located in Brooklyn? I would totally enjoy going there.
    Thanks for the great pictures and article.
    Ciao Ciao,

  9. Denise Blackman

    My cousins near Naples served me Babas soaked in Limoncello instead of rum and this is how I make them at home in Seattle!

  10. Gian Banchero

    Dear Denise Blackman;
    …Babas soaked in Limoncello!!! Well, there’s goes my diet!!! One just has to hear of the combination to be seduced into the “must try” mode. I’m doing a catering tomorrow and might include the Limoncello soaked idea, but knowing my weakness I probably will devour the majority of the little soaked breads before presenting them. Thank you for bringing up a new twist on the recipe.

  11. Denise Blackman,
    Babas soaked in Limoncello sounds like pure sin. When we are in Italy we will definitely give it a go. I have loved the responses to Barbara’s article on Baba’s and sfogliatelle. John B

  12. Denise blackman

    Gian and John- I am on vacation for a few weeks but when I get home I will post the recipe I have-super easy! I make my own Limoncello-we go thru so much it is much more cost effective. Limoncello in Italina icing on Angel food cake is amazing too!

  13. Gian Banchero

    Dear Denise;
    I await the the recipe with great anticipation!!!… A thousand blessings on your house!!!. Thank you, thank you! I’ve tried making Limoncello from cookbooks a couple times without success, always I’ve found triumph from a person who makes a product and knows what they are doing. Please enjoy your vacation and, again, (smile) grazie!!!

  14. Denise Blackman

    Then I will post the recipes for Babas and Limoncelllo!

  15. Denise

    As promised…

    Limoncello-i cannot get pure grain alcohol so use vodka instead, I think it is better.

    Zest or microplane the peel from 12 med lemons and 1 lime making sure not to get any white plith. Add peel to a fifth of 100 proof decent vodka. Let set 2-4 weeks till vodka is bright yellow and then drain out rind. Filter with a coffee filter to make sure all rind is out. Make simple syrup with 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar-let cool. Mix lemon vodka, simple syrup and a fifth of 80 proof vodka. I let it sit for 1 month after this-the longer the smoother. Store in freezer after adding sugar and serve ice cold!

  16. Denise

    Babas con Limoncello
    Disolve 2 t. dry yeast in 2 T. warm water. Let sit till bubbly. Put
    2 1/4 c flour, pinch of salt and 2 T. sugar in food processor, run a few secs to blend. Mix 4 beaten eggs with dissolved yeast. With processor running add liquid into flour and run for 20 seconds until soft dough gathers on blade and sides of bown are clean. Drop in 1/4 lb softened butter and process 20-30 secs till incorporated. Turn out the soft dough and knead by hand to form a smooth round and drop into a lightly buttered bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 min-it does not need to double.

    Butter Baba molds or cupcake tins or I use yorkshire pudding molds (the ones I use make 6 large babas). Deflate dough and cut into 12 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a round and place in mold. Molds should be 2/3 full-adjust amount of dough according to pan size. Let babas expand to fill the molds, about 30 min or more.

    Bake babas in a 400 degree oven 15-20 min or until dark gold on top. Turn out of pans and cool.

    Syrup-bring 3 cups water, 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice and 3 cups sugar to a full boil; add 1 cup limoncello and boil for 10 min. Turn off heat and immediatley push as many babas as will fit into syrup weighing with plate to keep them submerged. When they have soaked up enoough syrup to expand (10 or so minutes) remove and drain of wire rack set over dish.If you have more babas, boid syrup again and submerge another batch.

    Serve within a short time or set them in a shallow layer of syrup to stay moist. To serve slice in half and spoon with whipped cream drizzled with some warm syrup! Enjoy!

  17. I like your baba recipe and the history of it. I am Polish but was not aware of King Stanislaw Leszczynski being credited with creating this great dessert. Just wanted to make a comment on the origins of its name – I am not sure if he knew Ali Baba story or not, but it is more probable that the name baba comes from the traditional Polish cake made for centuries, which is called baba. It is a yeast cake made with lots of butter and eggs, in round shape, usually large but can be small as well, and the “must have” ingredient is a sugar icing on the top which finishes the cake and gives it the sweetness. That’s what was missing in the cake when King Leszczynski tried it – it was too plain without sugar icing. And as we know many great dishes were created by accident, the same could be true with throwing yeast cake to the bowl of rum and eating it after it got soaked in it. I remember this cake from my childhood and it was one of my favourite. If anyone is interested – search for Easter baba in Google images and you see similar cake in shape and ingredients, just without liquid rum. Great story, thank you.


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